Re-importing kabuki

From a recent NYT article on how globalized Japanese people supposedly have trouble finding jobs in Japan:

“Shukatsu” refers to the system in which Japanese companies typically hire the bulk of their workers straight from college and expect them to stay until retirement. Not getting a job upon graduation is seen as a potential career killer.

So competition is fierce. In the last three years, the percentage of new graduates in Japan who found work was the lowest since the government started collecting comparable data in 1996. As of Feb. 1, with two months left in the recruiting season, a fifth of students in their final year at college had yet to find jobs.

“Shukatsu is like Kabuki theater,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, an Osaka-based career consultant. “It’s difficult when you don’t fit the template.”

His advice to returnees: don’t be too assertive or ask too many questions.


Something tells me that young people who study in the US and then spend most of their job hunt trying to land work with Japanese companies might have unrealistic expectations of potential employers. They might not realize that US employers also have similarly kabuki-like expectations of potential recruits. In a lot of ways, the experience of working at your first company might not be that different.

I feel like I must have read this same article like 5 times over the last decade, whether in the form of a primer in Japanese business practices or a feature like this one. The tone of this piece is at odds with my experience working at a US law firm and two Japanese companies so far. Internationally minded people with the right attitude can find a lot of success in Japan. There is such a limited population of truly proficient English speakers that opportunities abound.

I think there can definitely be a mismatch between employer and employee expectations, but overall I think Japanese firms are desperate for talent that’s proficient both with English and dealing with Western culture. It’s mostly sucked up by the foreign firms operating here, so they are hurting for it. That is to say, there may well be many companies that fit the stereotype outlined in the article, but I think there are plenty of others that will welcome the type of talent they describe. Instead of whining to the New York Times, you guys should have spent that time submitting a few more job applications.

Does your experience jibe with mine? Let me know in the comments.

(Thanks to regular reader Diana for sending this in!)

4 thoughts on “Re-importing kabuki

  1. I’m not sure how helpful the opinions of foreigners working in Japan would be to gauge the overall marketability of Japanese with overseas experience for working in Japan. Obviously, any Japanese company that is willing to hire foreign workers will also value overseas experience in its Japanese hires, and any personal experiences of foreigners working in Japan will this necessarily be limited to that subset of companies. I know that from my personal experience, the company that I worked for cared enough about overseas experience in its new grad hires that they included me in the process as an interviewer. But the company was also a part of an industry that absolutely depended on foreign business partners and customers.

  2. Some disjointed thoughts from me:

    I don’t think the Japanese job hunting process is comparable to the American job hunting process, although the two formats are possibly slowly converging upon each other. There is OCI in the States, but at the undergraduate level it’s mostly aimed at business and engineering students who want to get snapped up by banks, consultancies or software companies. Pretty much everyone else has to scrape their way up through the want ads and word of mouth. In Japan you are basically either “on the bus” into a full-time job straight out of university, or you are “off the bus” and consigned to three-year stints with no prospects of promotion. Ad-hoc lateral hiring does exist in the corporate world here, but it’s mostly for senior managerial positions.

    It’s true that Japan has a dearth of “truly proficient English speakers,” but most of the international business in Japan these days is with other countries in Asia where the people on the other side of the table are usually not truly proficient English speakers either. The modern salary[wo]man just needs to have a decent TOEIC score and they are fine for most purposes. (Multilingual Chinese and Southeast Asian students coming out of Japanese universities seem to be getting snapped up quickly by both domestic and foreign companies, perhaps even moreso on average than their Japanese classmates. I don’t think this is the case for the handful of honkies like us who come out of Japanese universities.)

    In terms of quality of life, working for Japanese companies is usually a crappy proposition: long hours, low pay, age-based promotion regardless of ability, etc. The saving grace is that you basically can’t be fired or laid off unless you are totally disastrous for the company, but this means that many minorly-disastrous individuals stay entrenched in the system.

    From the article: Others with Western educations recall being treated with suspicion by Japanese recruiters, who referred to them openly as “over spec” — too elite to fit in, too eager to get ahead and too likely to be poached or to switch employers before long. This is very true. The aforementioned structure of Japanese companies means that ambitious kids will get fed up and move on before the company has had a chance to recover its initial investment on them.

  3. Amen to that… there has been a rush of pieces in the Japanese media about how the government wants to encourage young people to apply to more smaller businesses when doing shukatsu… but they are still doing shukatsu! According to the Nikkei this type of half-measure is all we can expect from the government because the only people it ever asks to propose reforms are Keidanren and Rengo, and they are both entrenched in the status quo.

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